Low-carbon cities – cutting emissions and improving lives in the world’s evolving cities

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Researchers in CCCEP, led by Professor Andy Gouldson at the University of Leeds, are helping cities to switch to low-carbon development paths, both in the UK and internationally.

More than half the world’s people now live in urban areas, and cities account for nearly three-quarters of the world’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Forecasts suggest the world’s urban population will nearly double by 2050, with the number of city-dwellers in lower and middle income countries expanding by 1.2 million people each week. This means the urban development decisions – or, in many cases, the non-decisions – taken in the next few years will be crucial in determining the success of efforts to mitigate against global climate change.

Prof Gouldson and his team have developed new approaches that are helping cities to understand their emissions, the ways in which they can switch to low carbon development paths and the economic case for making this switch. Research has been conducted not only in the UK but also in Peru, Brazil, India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Rwanda.

Their work has led to the adoption of low-carbon strategies that are now being implemented in a number of cities around the world. A joined-up, global overview has also highlighted the potential to save many billions of dollars through cost-effective investments in low-carbon urban development, while also providing multiple social and economic benefits. This helped to make the case for cities to be given more prominence in international agreements on climate change and in initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Within the UK, the team’s work on the potential for low-carbon cities started in Leeds in 2011. With support from the Department for Energy and Climate Change, they assessed the economic case for the adoption of a low-carbon development strategy for the Leeds City Region which has a population of 3 million people and an economy worth more than £52 billion a year. The research showed that the energy bill for the city region amounted to more than £5 billion a year – a previously unknown figure that helped to highlight the massive cost of energy in the local economy. But it also showed that nearly £5 billion could be profitably invested to reduce the city region’s energy bill by £1.2 billion a year whilst also making substantial cuts in its carbon emissions.

This evidence helped the Local Enterprise Partnership make the case for a low carbon development strategy, and to create a £20m fund for domestic energy efficiency improvements in the region. It also gave city leaders and local policy makers a menu of the most cost and carbon effective options that they could adopt in the area. This has helped them to make better informed and more targeted interventions – not only on climate change but also in areas such as housing, health and transport.

Subsequent studies have helped inform the adoption of a low-carbon plan for Bristol, and the work of the Green Commissions in Sheffield and Birmingham. More recent research has shown that such schemes can be much more effective at reducing energy use – and also tackling fuel poverty – than is often assumed. And other work has explored the business models that can be adopted to finance and deliver low carbon projects, even in times of austerity.

In an international context, work to tackle urban carbon emissions has centred on lower- and middle-income cities. In Recife, Brazil, research has led to the adoption of a new low-carbon development plan while in Lima, Peru it has been used to support a Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) application for funding to extend to the metro scheme. In Kolkata, India, the team’s findings have been used to win finance for energy-efficient street lighting and in Iskander, Malaysia they helped secure support to implement a ‘low-carbon society blueprint’. In China, studies in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin are still ongoing, focusing on the potential for low-carbon development that also delivers much-needed improvements in air quality.

In all of these cities, the presentation of an economic case for action on climate change has helped to ensure that the issue is not left to the often under-resourced and somewhat peripheral environment departments but is also featured in key areas such as economic development, infrastructure planning and urban regeneration. This ‘mainstreaming’ of climate policy is critically important if cities are to make the transition towards low carbon development.

At global level, the team’s recent analysis for the Global Commission on Economy and Climate – reported in more than 100 articles in 15 countries – explored the potential for cities around the world to adopt a number of readily-available, low-carbon measures in the buildings, transport and waste sectors.

The analysis estimated that the stream of savings that could be generated through investments in low carbon development in the world’s cities in the period to 2050 would have a current value of US$16.6 trillion. As impressive as this figure is, it is important to note that it excludes the multiple social benefits that could also accrue, relating for example, to reduced congestion, reduced air pollution and improved public health. The team hopes further work with the Global Commission will quantify these benefits further.

As well as emphasising the economic case for climate action in cities, the team’s work has also evaluated the barriers to change, the need for multi-level, cross-sectoral governance arrangements, and the financing options and business models that need to be developed before action can become much more widespread.

Critically, the work also highlights how even very substantial low-carbon investments in cities could be rapidly overwhelmed by the impacts of on-going urban development – even where that development is also low-carbon. This suggests that early-stage initiatives need to generate capacities for deeper transitions if they are to be effective in the longer term.

As well as being supported through CCCEP, the work of Prof Gouldson and colleagues has received funding from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the International Growth Centre, the Indonesian Government, the Peruvian Government, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Chinese National Science Foundation. Research has been presented at the UN climate talks on a number of occasions, as well as to international bodies such as the OECD, to various national and city governments and at numerous public meetings.